Friday, December 16, 2022

Dungeon23 Roundup #1

We're still in December 2022, but dungeon23 is already popping! If you've been under a rock and somehow missed dungeon23, then read about Sean's challenge here. Basically, it's a journalling challenge where everyone is working on a megadungeon, one room a day, for a year. I posted here about the Catacombs of the North Wind, the dreamlands dungeon I'll be doing. Here's the roundup of stuff that's caught my attention so far. 


First folks have been putting together some significant resources. A lot of people are using this as an excuse to buy a fancy planner (*guilty*). But @sivads_sanctum pointed out that a likely more effective technology may already exist for almost $0. To wit, 

Truth bomb

People have also been pulling together digital assets, which could be printed out and put into a binder like that or printed and bound in some more fancy way. Or even left digital. First up is Gus L's contribution, The Dungeon23 Workbook. Which you can find FREE on All Dead Generations here. It's a google doc, so it's easily customizable. Just duplicate it and you can alter the text as you see fit. It's got a groovy cover, which Gus says is a reworked WPA poster with an adventuring party snuck in. 

This looks amazing

The pages of the workbook are neat. There are periodic pages for maps of whole levels and encounter tables. But then you get one page for each room, so less cramped and more organized than Sean's teeny tiny planner. The rooms have the dungeon name, your name, the level, a room map, info on the lighting (crucial for dungeon crawling), a description, and then a spot for a couple of features to be listed OSE style. Monsters and treasure too. This is a perfect system for digitally sharing, i.e. tweeting rooms, if that's your thing btw. It's a neat little package:

 In a similar spirit Pandion Games has put together a Dungeon Year Design Journal on itch for PWW here. It's pretty groovy. You can download it in a bunch of different formats, including landscape and portrait and different sized paper. It's got big double-page dot map spreads, and single pages for rooms like Gus's but with less structure: encounters, notes, connections, and maps. There's also an alternative minimalist version that replicates the structure of Sean's planner. 

Lone Archivist has a really groovy dungeon23 asset pack with some very nice looking logos that you can download here and slap onto thing. It looks like Lone Archivist is going to have stickers soon too, STICKERS. I mean look at how good this looks:

This is just one of several gorgeous variations

In general, it looks like a great place to go for the accumulating resources on will be Andrew Duvall's page, which you can go to here. Poke around there to find some more stuff. But now, into the dungeon itself.


People have begun doing some good posts about advice. Of course, the OSR in the heyday of the blogosphere produced tons of relevant stuff. The best collection of links by far that I know of is this one by Ava Islam at Permanent Cranial Damage. If you want a reading list, Ava's got you covered. 

My favorite blogpost with advice so far is Kyana's post at the always wonderful Noise San Signal blog. You should read the whole thing for her process and thoughts. Kyana is approaching dungeon23 as an opportunity to work up a bunch of small, 7-room locations, rather than a megadungeon. She's got a lovely scrap-booking approach, which people should really think about doing. There's no reason we can't integrate collage, stapled maps, even painted swatches in Kyana's case.  

I also enjoyed the first in a series on megadungeon design by Dave McGrogan. He helpfully distinguishes 3 themes to think about in designing your megadungeon: historical, structural, and aesthetic that can guide your creation. 


To find lots of stuff on either Mastodon or Twitter, just search the #dungeon23. So far, my favorite specimen by far is Zedeck Siew's  Last Voyage of the Sea-Queen Lessa, which you can see here. It's a funky vertical shrine housing a ghost ship. Thematically, it vibes with the dungeon I'm working on. Zedeck's adventure is a lovely tidbit that you could run pretty much as is. Go to his Tumblr blog now and check it out.  

I'm also enjoying watching Gus' early efforts take shape, which you can follow @RatkingRpgs on twitter and probably eventually on his blog All Dead Generations. But I mean, just look at this thing:

Finally, I've been enjoying the posts by Chris Bissette on Mastodon ( who has been posting about the first rooms of his new megadungeon, and @goblin_archives on twitter. Goblin Archive's project looks fun:

The Feed

My offer still stands to include your #dungeon23 stuff in my occasional roundups, especially if you have a blog. If you send me a blog (throughultansdoor AT gmail) that's doing #dungeon23 stuff on the semi-regular, I'll probably drop it into #dungeon23 bloglist on the right here. But whether or not I do that, I'll certainly put it into my own RSS feed and draw attention here to anything I find that's neat on here. Also tag me on Twitter or Mastodon if you see something neat. 


Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Catacombs of the North Wind

This post introduces the Catacombs of the North Wind, the subject of my Dungeon23 endeavor for the next year. My plan is to work on this dungeon and post about it maybe every other week for the entirety of 2023. We'll see how that goes! 

The Treaty of the Farthest Shore

The creation of the Catacombs of the North Wind is one with the founding of Zyan. The Sky Singers were the settlers of Zyan. For centuries they were explorer merchants, princely conquerors, nomads of the Endless Azure Sea, famous for sailing the heavens above aboard a fleet of flying galleons. The Marine Wars, about which little is known today, were likely a series of skirmishes flaring occasionally into catastrophic violence between the Sky Singers and the spirits of the air. The Treaty of the Farthest Shore brought an end to the Marine Wars. The Sky Singers received from the spirts of the air a title over Zyan and a new-founded glittering monarchy. In exchange, they agreed to ground forevermore their ships. 

The Catacombs of the North Wind were carved into a set of whistling caverns that riddle the cliff beneath the precipitous scree of tumbled stones that lie beyond the Wall of Cusp and extend to the cliff-face at the island's edge. History teaches that the five great flagships of the fleet served as hecatombs sanctifying The Treaty of the Farthest Shore. In the upper levels of the Catacombs, their remains were interred in sepulchers with mystical rites of remembrance. With them were put to rest the old ways of the Sky Singers. The lower level of the catacombs is said to be open to the Endless Azure Sea. Formerly it was a sacred playground of the spirits of the air. These marine environs were repurposed to serve as the Chambers of Audience, the meeting grounds for the ambassadors of the Kings and Queens of Zyan and the Court of the North Wind that rules the fickle spirits of the air. They are said to be replete with the richest of kingly trappings befitting such a meeting ground between monarchs from two realms. 

As Zyan has declined, turning ever inwards, memory of the Catacombs of the North Wind have dimmed, for the last audience was held many centuries ago. The obvious approach is by a ruined grand stairs that once led from the Wall of Cusp down the steep scree to the catacomb entrance. This entrance is patrolled by the King's Guard still, if lackadaisically. There are rumored to be a number of ways into the Catacombs through the eastern edge of the Apartments of the Guildless, the sealed, forsaken undercity populated by various pariahs and criminal enterprises of Zyan, stalked by murderous puppets and other horrors that runs beneath Pentacle and Cusp. 

Stories & Speculations about the Creation of the Catacombs

The first word goes to Learned Paw, legendary jurist of the era pre-dating the Slow War between the cats and the Zyanese. It is drawn from his autobiography, A Cat at the Moonlight Court: Memoir of a Feline Barrister

The creation of the Catacombs of the North Wind exists as a cipher of myth and legend, refracted through the lens of a thousand works of art. As a barrister, with deep training in Zyanese jurisprudence and knowledge of the antique maritime law of the Sky Singers, I see in the depths of this mystery tangled legal questions that point to the Treaty of the Farthest Shore. I am convinced that the enigma of the Catacombs can be deciphered only through the law of that treaty. But as a cat, I cannot help but see in this bizarre founding event the freighted folly of the Zyanese and the capricious, daemonic purposes of the spirits of the air. As my whiskers twitch, I fear I will never understand these people, no matter how often I drink at a saucer with them. 

Next a relevant passage from Medes the Utmost Chronicler, who wrote in the age of the Incandescent Kings. This passage is drawn from her Metaphysical Crown, Illumined by The Light of Reason:

Although his augurs counseled against it, reading mixed and ominous portents in the heavens above and below, Hegalion the Captain, leader of the resplendent fleet of the Sky Singers, saw no other way than to parlay and negotiate a lasting peace. 
    The Treaty of the Farthest Shore is named for the site of the conclave, the most remote of the satellite islands that share an orbit with the Rock of Zyan. The negotiations were conducted between the Priests of Azmora (as the Archon Azmarane was then known) and the Squamous Jurists of Hashivaz, Prince of the North Wind. It is said that Hegalion agreed to ground the Sky Singer’s fleet, ceding the currents of the Endless Azure Sea to the feckless spirits of the air. He also agreed to erect the Catacombs of the North Wind, a complex of whistling, wind-filled shrines in the caves that catacomb the eastern cliffside of the main island, where pleasing worship could be rendered to the marine beings. 
    In exchange Hegalion received three things: a cessation of mischief and violence from the genies of the sea, the service of a number of spirits in fixed roles that were distributed to the aristocratic lines, and the Metaphysical Crown. The Metaphysical Crown was an artifact of tremendous power that would found the monarchy, and make Zyan the flying pearl of all Wishery. That there were further costs he did not yet know, but would learn soon.

Last word for now goes to this passage from Path of the Flenser, a text of religious instruction for apprentices being inducted into the Fleischguild:

The time came at last when the shining vessels, sacred patrimony of the Sky Singers, were to be destroyed. It was then that the butchers of the fleet asserted themselves against the shipwrights, who claimed the rights to dismantle the ships they had built. With their farseeing wisdom and honied tongues, gift from crafty Malprion, the Butchers argued thus:
    "Who could say that these glorious ships are mere conveyances and machines as you vulgar carpenters insist? Do they not partake of the wonders of life, carrying the Sky Singers through the Azure Sea like a pod of Leviathans, at once living city and enclosing womb. Are not each of these storied galleons unique? Do each not have a personality and a deep history that is intwined with the very history of we Sky Singers? What do carpenters with their saws and awls know of the slaughter of such great beasts? Who better than we butchers to flense and carve the flagships at their joints? Have we not prepared with subtle arts the flesh that has sustained us on our perambulations? Have we not cut with exacting precision the sacrifices we have offered as boons on behalf of our fleet, in keeping with our customs?" 
    All could see the wisdom of their arguments, and so they prevailed over the carpenters. From the hecatombs of the six great flagships of the Sky Singers were thus born the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Butcher Priests. They were sanctified and elevated in the eyes of all by this holy labor. Lavished in gratitude with rich gifts from the people, they received honor and wealth merited by this great task. With these proceeds they established the first sacrificial temples, and built their own sacred catacombs in emulation of the Catacombs of the North Wind. So was born from this founding act of butchery our Fleischguild, without whose labors the pleasing odors of charred meat and sizzling fat would never reach the thrones of the Archons. All praise to Malprion! 

Rumors and Hooks (from Some Familiar Faces)

Cephaea, Prophetess of the Muddled Waters: "The sterile Catacombs of the North Wind imprison many lonely ruined beauties that would be more at home with our collection of sewer treasures. Greatest of the broken lovelies in those whistling caverns is the Song Blade. Forged with the highest art of the Sky Singers, the music of the heavens embodied in steel. It was broken into three pieces. For these fragments we would pay a king's ransom in prophecies and wishes."

Captain Dwerdosma: "We Volish Hillers have never forgotten that we were once Sky Singers, least of all The Sons and Daughters of the Vigilant Watcher. For us the Catacombs of the North Wind hold a special meaning. Oh, what I wouldn't give to lay my eyes upon those splendid galleons on which our ancestors sailed the Endless Azure Sea! The rare gleaming woods decorated with frisson opal and father of pearl; the glorious figureheads, works of master carpentry none can match in this age; the terrible weapons of nautical warfare; and the subtle sails of shimmering gold. But alas, none are permitted to traduce those sacred grounds."

Free Hand Hesock: "I'm no scholar, but I'd recognize a pirate anywhere. The Sky Singers were the greatest pirates of all time! Like any good pirate, they buried their booty, stolen from across all of Wishery. If no ones dug it up, it's still in the Catacombs. There's a shanty about it that I often sing while I'm separating my enemies from their hands. Do you want to hear? Vigo, bring some lavender whisky, be quick."

Manuk-Cush: "Among the scriveners, it is believed that the original of the Treaty of the Farthest Shore is housed in the Catacombs of the North Wind. This legal document established the monarchy. It is the basis of the law of the crown. It is also said to govern diplomatic relations with the spirits of the air. According to the scriveners, it was not written by human hands, but was instead crafted by the squamous jurists according to exquisite arts of the spirits of the air. They say it is no ordinary document." 

The Cranemay: "Do not torment me by stirring cherished memories of that place. How many ages has it been since I played with my cousins at the Beach of Pink Sands? What mischief we used to make amongst the swirling currents of those caves, when the island was wild, before the Zyanese came. The beach there is strewn with the most amazing shells I have ever seen. As a memento, bring me the scintillating shell of an ether conch, through which I can hear the roar of the sea once again. I will render the service of all my beloved cranes to you."  

See the next installment of The Catacombs of the North Wind, "Below the Wall of Cusp", detailing the entrance to the dungeon here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2022


 So Sean McCoy posted this on Twitter. 

He wrote about it more on his substack here. Sean is calling the challenge #Dungeon23. The challenge is to write one room a day, one level a month, for a total of 365 rooms spread over 12 levels. I'm going to be doing a version of it (more on what I'll be mapping in a minute). A lot of other people on Twitter also said they were in. If enough of us do it, this could be the first REALLY big collective event in the OSR since the heady days of Google plus. I mean sure, there have been lovely game jams and a lot of collective projects around particular game communities (Mothership, Mörk Borg, Mausritter, etc). But this hobbyist, let's-do-a-thing-together project sure would be a lot of fun. 

Now I know there's a certain sort of person (OK, it's me) who is perhaps inappropriately motivated to begin a project by the thought of getting a fancy journal. Luckily Sean has us covered because he is rocking a Hobonichi Techo Weeks 2023. As he explains, they're nice because they have graph paper and a facing space for a key broken down by each day of the week. I think one minor challenge will be that the map for each level will be spread across a bunch of 7-room page spreads, but I think we can figure it out. The monthly spread looks like a good place to do a big d30 encounter table for the entire level. 

You can get the Hobonichi Techo Weeks on Amazon and on Jet Pens for about $25. I got the one in light purple because it is well known among all opium dreaming wizards that lavender is the true color of dreams. Sean's yellow looks real nice too, a sort of rich ochre. Or just do it on your tablet or a Mead notebook or whatever will be convenient and easy.

What will this amount to? Well, I think if enough people do it, we can share our scribbles around in whatever form we feel comfortable. Scans, photos, little PDFs, word docs, whatever it is. Sure, you could post them in Twitter threads or on Mastodon, or (heaven help you) on Reddit. But I would humbly suggest that you consider posting them on a blog. Don't have a blog? This is a golden opportunity to start one! Make it about going through this process. Write one post every week just sharing the results of your journalling. If you blog about this, reach out to me on Twitter or by email (throughultansdoor AT gmail DOT com) and I will put your blog in my RSS feed and do megadungeon roundups on my blog or social media accounts.  

What might come of this in the broader sense? Imagine if we got to a place where you could mix and match from a whole host of little bit sized megadungeon bits that people were passing around. For one thing, it might get a whole bunch of people actually playing megadungeon campaigns, and so thinking and talking about them. I think there's a lot of innovation to be had in the wild space of the megadungeon. It has that fun double quality of being a strange old form that was left behind early in the hobby, and also a space of innovation in a certain phase of OSR design. It would be fun to bring it back to life now and see what new places we could collectively go with it.

In my journalling, I will mainly be focusing on The Catacombs of the North Wind. It's one of three large dungeons in Zyan. I'll write about it more soon. But here's the gist. The Sky Singers were the settlers of Zyan. For centuries they were explorer merchants, princely conquerors, nomads of the Endless Azure Sea, famous for sailing aboard a fleet of flying galleons. The Sky Singers received from the spirts of the air a title over Zyan and a new-founded glittering monarchy. In exchange, they agreed to ground forevermore their ships. The six of the great flagships of the fleet served as butchered hecatombs to this treaty, their remains interred with mystical rites of remembrance in the whistling catacombs that riddle the cliff face of the rock of Zyan. The lower levels of these catacombs are open to the Endless Azure Sea and were once a sacred playground of the spirits of the air. Here lie the Chambers of Audience, the long slumbering meeting grounds for the ambassadors of Zyan and the Court of the North Wind. When I run out of steam on the Catacombs of the North Wind, as I surely will, I will likely to something more straightforward, perhaps a classic sword and sorcery megadungeon. 

 My Hobonichi Techo Weeks is on its way even as we speak. It starts in January, so I'll be beginning Sean's challenge on New Year's Day. I hope you join us!

Sunday, October 2, 2022

My Process

Since I'm getting a dungeon into publishable form right now for a new project, I thought it might be useful to share a little bit about my process for creating adventure locales. I’m pretty sure that my way of doing this is idiosyncratic. For reasons I will explain, it could never work for a “professional” ttrpg writer, someone who mainly writes on commission for other people or who produces game material outside of extended play. So, your mileage may vary. But I hope it’s interesting nonetheless and maybe useful to someone somewhere. 
The most important thing to say about my process is that all my writing arises from material that I prepare for play in my own campaigns. The kind of gaming I’m into is long running open world sandbox campaigns set in evocative worlds. So, for me, an important part of the background is that before I create an adventure locale, I already have in mind some pretty distinctive setting concept, e.g. a door has opened to a flying city of the dreamlands. This means that when I create adventure sites, the question I’m asking is what sort of adventure site would go in a setting like that? It also means that everything I make is designed for play and arises from the actual necessities of my gaming table. 
With these preliminaries out of the way, here are the stages of creation for me. I’m presenting them in a faux chronological order, although the process is not always so linear.

1. Generate a Concept

All my adventure locales have a high concept around which they are strongly themed. The ruins of a puppet theater where people were punished with trial by puppet. Museum tombs of the butcher priests. The drowned castle of a biomancer. An upside down jungle teeming with alien life. If I have two adventure locales, and they remind me of one another in concept, then I work hard to change one of them until they are thoroughly distinct.  
Everything is organized around this concept. This one-off concept helps me at every step to imagine the dungeon: its nature, contents, and factions. It’s because I have the concept clearly in view that I can begin to create the locale. Without it, I’m lost. How do I come up with these concepts? Well, the concept of an adventure locale comes to me as a flash. To that extent, there is no way I come up with them. 
Usually, at first, I imagine one or two kernels around which the pearl of the adventure locale forms. For example, it might be a vision of the approach to the location. Take the chum spouts at the entrance to the Catacombs of the Fleischguild where effluvia of the endless sacrifices the butcher priests perform in Zyan above is disgorged from grimacing stone faces into the sewer river. Jeweled flies swarm across the red slick of chum in which viscera bobs. This was the first thing that came to me when I thought of the concept of the catacombs of the Fleischguild. 

Russ Nicholson's representation of the chum spouts!

Or perhaps I start with the idea of one or two set-piece rooms like the ruined stage of the theater infested by white swine, which I think was the first idea I had about the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s theater. In each case this vision came to me because I had a strong concept that suggested them. If there’s going to be a ruined punishment theater, then of course there’s going to be a ruined stage. So that stage needs to be something special and big. Around these starting ideas thoughts begin to coalesce. 

This part is a little embarrassing to admit. But I know that things are going well at this stage if I fall in love with the idea of the place. There is something almost adolescent and melodramatic in this experience for me: I fall into reveries where my mind exults. This is, if I’m going to be frank, the main pleasure I get in prep—and it’s a substantial one. When combined with the pleasures of play it’s enough to keep me hooked on GMing ttrpgs.  

2. Draw a map

Since dungeons, certainly, and adventure locales in general, are usually spaces to be explored, for me the map is crucial. I like to draw the map with only the concept and a few rooms in mind. I try to make the map properly Jaquaysed, with multiple looping paths, changes of terrain, and so on. This creates interesting spatial relations between different locations, suggesting locales and tensions between factions, harder to access areas, etc. 

An unpublished level from the Abyssal Dungeon

Although I'm no artist, I try to make it look visually interesting. I end up drawing a lot of rooms that look kinda weird without knowing yet what exactly might be in them. Sometimes I draw some contents for the rooms, although since I key the map later, many things keyed aren’t represented on the map. There’s something about these handmade maps that really provides a scaffolding for my imagination. I often color them in using my children's art markers. 

My original map for the Catacombs of the Fleischguild

If it’s a hexmap, I do much the same thing, but this time using Hex Kit. I own ALL the tilesets, so I have a huge array of visually arresting material to work with. Again aesthetic considerations dominate to some extent. Since Hex Kit is a digital tool and so easily altered, I find that this process involves a lot more revision as I go.  

The Depths, Level 2 of the inverted White Jungle

3. Look at Visuals 

Often when I'm preparing to stock the map, or even before, I gather a trove of images. Frequently, I have some images in mind from the very beginning as part of the concept of the place. Indeed, my current (not yet public) project was born from a single illustration by Liz Danforth that captivated my imagination as an adolescent. Since I can’t quite talk about that yet, consider these images from Lotte Reiniger’s masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed which I had in mind from when I started thinking about the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater. These images were the source of the shadow puppets and the weaver of shadows in that dungeon. 

While Prince Achmed is a movie that I had seen previously, my main tools for this stage of the process have historically been searches of online repositories of images like Tumblr and Pinterest. Tumblr, which was fantastic and is now a bit of a ghost town, but it never had a good way to organize saved images. So I used the “like” button for years for this purpose, but it’s hard to search through images you liked. Pinterest even if a bit let brilliant, is easier to work with. Here you can create different boards. If you click on a pin you like, it will recommend similar pins. Over time you feed can become mildly interesting too. 
To get a sense of this, I have a tumblr which you can look at hereHere are my pinterest boards. Take a look at this one on bio-occultism that I started when I was working on the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper (also very relevant to the Catacombs of the Fleischguild). It now has more than 2000 pinned images. For the stocking of interesting treasure, this Pinterest board titled "artifacts" has served me well. Ever wonder how I avoid basically ever giving gold pieces as treasure in my published adventures? Look no further than this Pinterest board. It’s all there, more than 1600 pins. Feel free to use it for all your treasure needs!

4. Draw on Memories of Place 

Besides past media, like novels and films, another resource I draw on sometimes to get the vibe or feel of a place right are captivating memories of different places I’ve been. I suppose the ultimate exercise in this well-spring of adventures rooted in place is Patrick Stuart’s Silent Titals that presents a fantasy version of the Wirral. Zedeck Siew has written about this as well in the context of A Thousand Thousand Islands. Most of the stuff where I’ve done this the most heavily have not yet been published. Since I was a city rat growing up exploring NYC, and then was got obsessed with the falling down, labyrinthine splendor of hilly Pittsburgh where I lived for the better part of a decade, a lot of this stuff finds its way into the city of my setting, Zyan Above. 
But I can give a modest example from my published work. The Catacombs of the Fleischguild is infused with the eerie vibes of visiting the Museum of Natural History with my father as child. The strange stillness of those dioramas behind glass. The cool air and quietness. The weird greenish, dim lighting. The hall of totem poles. Artifacts of unknown religious significance displayed on velvet cloths. The datedness of the place, as though it had come out of another time. The colonialism that infused it all without context.

5. Key in preparation for play

So far, everything I've described is fun. But I find the initial keying of a dungeon and the initial creation of random encounters to accompany the key just awful. I can usually only do it under the yoke of necessity, desperately as the players approach. I run out of imaginative steam very quickly. 
Usually I can do 4 or 5 new keyed rooms maybe per session, which is often just enough to stay ahead of the players. I write up full room descriptions. Here’s what I do. I try to mention only salient, observable things, in the first paragraph. I think of this as putting things on the menu that then players can follow up by asking questions or observing the things more closely. So I keep the descriptions very brief in that first paragraph, only naming the thing, or perhaps mentioning what would first strike you looking at the thing. I save additional information for later paragraphs, following the same order of presentation in the initial paragraph. If I mention the book case first in the opening paragraph, then I discuss the bookcase first in the second paragraph.
This structure works for my brain at the table. I can scan the first paragraph easily and describe the room to my players. I can then look down to remind myself what comes next when they follow up on things. Here’s a dirty secret: I often literally use the first paragraph as read aloud text to my players. Yes, I sometimes employ the much hated read aloud text. I think it works in my game because the descriptions in that first paragraph are very short and to the point. I try to make them evocative, employing turns of phrase and adjectives that paint a vivid picture where I can, but I keep them very brief. For the great majority of rooms that I don’t manage to fully key for a session, I just maybe just jot down a few words or a sentence for those that are near enough to where the players are exploring that they might come up in play.
When I’m stuck keying, which I very often am, I find it helpful to go for a run. It doesn’t work on an exercise machine, which is monotonous suffering that makes thinking impossible. Something about running a route I know well draws me inward and allows my mind to turn creatively. It’s almost the only thing that I can consciously do to “force” the issue. I actually do a lot of philosophy when running too, so it works for me for anything that requires creative thought.
My encounter table is similarly created in fits and starts. It begins with 4 pitiful entries. Maybe the second session it bumps up to 5. Finally four sessions in I get it up to a semi-respectable 6 so that I can finally use a six-sided die. 
I find this whole process quite stressful. Although I love playing, I hate the prep for playing at this point, because it always feels like I'm running something half-baked and I so often come up imaginatively empty. It’s primarily this stress, when combined with a couple of sub-par sessions that leave a bad taste in the mouth, that have caused me to back away from GMing in those periods where I felt that I needed to take a break. 
So prep is a double-edged sword.

6. Run it again 

At the end of that process, I usually have a dungeon that's about 2/3 written up. Now that I have a rough draft of the key for most of the dungeon, I often run it again for a different group. (I've had 3 dreamlands campaigns, two of which are currently running.) At this point the prep is more leisurely. Each session I "finish" 3-4 rooms that are unfinished or polish something else up, or expand the encounter table by a couple of entries. Since I can just run it without doing much work, this second time through is relaxing and basically stress free. Prep here is fun again, since I can fill in keys at my leisure and expand on things when as suits my fancy. I also know the dungeon very well and have it at my imaginative fingertips. This is part of the reason that I run my stuff more than once: I get the fun without the stress. 

7. Rewrite it for Publication

After some time has passed since the second run, I ask myself what would be required to make the adventure location publishable. The main goal of this process is to dial up what's neat about the adventure location up to 11. In other words, I try to lean in to the concept of the location and what is unique about the adventure. I take the opportunity to remove the things that don’t fit with the theme. I also replace the the bits that sagged in play with something more exciting that better fits the concept, and to fix any problems. Often unique mechanics that would support this concept in play occur to me at this point. I also take the opportunity to pep everything up a bit, swapping whatever small bits is mundane with something evocative. There are many little flourishes and new ideas that work their way in here. This part is fun too.  
When I start commissioning art, or when Gus does his wonderful maps for me, there's also some real creative synergy that emerges. It was Gus' map of the Sewer River that inspired me to really do up the sewer river properly for Issue 3. Sending me that map was throwing down a creative gauntlet. Similarly, Huargo's art has led me to subtly shift course a number of times. 

8. Playtest the finished product 

Ideally, I playtest it again at this point for a 3rd group. If I were a real professional, I would have other people playtest it for me, since that’s obviously the best practice: seeing how well it runs at other people’s tables. But I’ve never done that. Chalk that up to my being a DIY solo author. 

That, in a nutshell is my process. What's your process? Does it resemble any of this? How does it differ? Drop it in the comments!

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Dream Aesthetics Dilemma


I recently reviewed John Battle's My Body is a Cage for Bones of Contention. Battle’s game combines slice of life real world downtime with adventuring in dream dungeons. The game comes with 7 dungeons that embody dream aesthetics quite vividly. I ran the dreamy Hotel Atkinson by Ema Acosta for playtesting purposes. Although the dream aesthetics came through strong in the adventure, there were some downsides that bothered my players. This got me thinking about a dilemma one faces when combining dream aesthetics with the playstyle associated with the OSR. I thought it might be worth saying how I resolve the dilemma in my own published work and home game. I think what I have to say is generally applicable for OSR games.

Dreamlands Aesthetics vs. Dream Aesthetics

When discussing dream aesthetics, I think it’s worth distinguishing two things. The first is the literary tradition of writing about travel in dream worlds. Let us call this the “dreamlands aesthetic”. Although there are no doubt many such traditions, I’m thinking here primarily of weird tales or fantasy authors, most notably Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft, and their several imitators and elaborators. This is a literary tradition, a special variant of the weird tale, with its own tropes, imaginaries, forms of expression, and aesthetics. In these authors we find the idea of a land of dreams, or the dreamlands, a sort of stable and fantastic country in some way reached through dreams. The authors tend to use both surreal elements and exoticism, sometimes orientalist in its inflection, as a way of emphasizing the fantastical otherness of this place beyond the veil of sleep. We also find many particulars, like the idea in Lovecraft that cats have a special place in the land of dreams, or the idea in Dunsany that one may only cross over to the land of dreams if one knows the hidden places that straddle the two worlds. 

We might distinguish this weird tale tradition from what I call “dream aesthetics”. To evoke dream aesthetics is to attempts to create a dreamlike quality by incorporating features of dreams. Dream aesthetics draws on our own nocturnal experience with unstable transitions, surreal and absurd elements, nightmares, anxiety dreams, and so on. Dreamlands fiction, of course, does tap into this surreal wellspring to some extent in its construction of a mysterious and wondrous other country, but it’s far from the dominant theme.

For a literary-visual case that hews far closer to dream aesthetics than Lovecraft or Dunsany, take Winsor McCay’s glorious comic, Little Nemo in Slumberland. The strip ran as a full pages in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald from 1905-1911. (It had some later reincarnations in different papers.) In its first two years, each installment was in the form of one of little Nemo’s recurring dream of his failed attempts to reach the princess of slumberland for a playdate at her palace. Each installment ended in anxiety dream fashion, with things getting out of hand in some catastrophic way, only for Nemo to awaken in his bed, tangled in the sheets. Along the way the comic evokes surreal and absurd elements to create a a glorious dreamlike visual experience. The comic is shot through with dream aesthetics, beginning with the use of recurring anxiety dreams to frame the serial, and then the extended of surreal elements like the manner of transit, as in the precarious walking bed in the strip above. 

I’ll talk more about dreamlands aesthetics, and Dunsany and Lovecraft, another time (and maybe Windsor McKay too). But for now, I want to turn to the question what happens if we wish to evoke dream aesthetics in our roleplaying games. Can we do for old school roleplaying games what Little Nemo in Slumberland did for Sunday comics?

Dream Aesthetics

Suppose you want to infuse a locale--say a dungeon or pointcrawl—with a dreamlike vibe. Here are some surreal features of actual dreams on which you might be tempted to draw to produce a dream aesthetic for that dungeon.

In dreams, the spatial logic of physical locations breaks down. Places are conflated. Sometimes I'm in one place but it's mysteriously also at the same time another place. Or it's an amalgam of two very different places. There are also sudden transitions between locations. I might open a closet door and find myself on a beach. Dreams are less about navigating objective spaces and more about a vivid sense of place. Generally speaking, coherent spatial representations that links a space you occupy from the first person point of view to an objective map of a region that one is navigating—the sort of thing that looms large in driving apps—does not get a lot of play in our dreams.

Causality is also wonky in dreams. In an anxiety dream, no matter how hard I try, maybe I can't get the key out of the bottom of my backpack, or into the lock; or to my consternation my gun shoots a stream of bubbles instead of bullets at my pursuer. The identity of objects can also get weird. A piece of fruit might somehow also be a book, or a sword a key, or a mirror a disease.

Another way in which dreams are surreal is the people you meet. We find the same mysterious identities here too. For example, someone you know well in real life might look entirely different in the dream, or the person might be an amalgam of two people at once, or a part of a person. Often people we meet in dreams seem less like genuinely intelligent others and more like symbols or figments that occupy a certain role in given scenes. The people we are with often shift subtly as well, without it seeming strange to us in the dream.

OSR Play Styles

In OSR play, player characters explore perilous and fantastical spaces, seeking to overcome objective challenges to accomplish their goals. Furthermore, OSR style games are sandboxes rather than railroads, emphasizing player agency and unpredictable solutions to open-ended problems, as well as emergent rather than scripted stories.

Dungeons, as location-based rather than scene-based adventures, work well in this context provided they are designed with an open-ended spatial logic. The link between the first person point of view and an objective map of space is crucial. Part of the exploration of a dungeon involves uncovering spatial relations between locations in play. You learn that this room is over here in this quadrant, and there is a secret way to get from here to there, or that this region of the dungeon sits atop this other region, which can be accessed vertically through a chasm.

Why is this important to the playstyle? Partly it’s about discovering the unknown—i.e. the pleasure of the players coming to know about things that (already) exist in unexplored regions of the map. But provided the dungeon is properly Jaquaysed, these coherent spatial discoveries also allow for high levels of player agency and unpredictable interaction. The players can come at locations from different routes. They can leverage their knowledge of a coherent space to short-circuit hazards, sneak past inhabitants, give monsters and NPCs the run-around, use environmental features in unpredictable ways to stage ambushes or solve problems, and so on.

Furthermore, generally speaking, in OSR games, NPCs are parts of factions that want things and so can be engaged with in social ways. Many old school games start an encounter with a reaction roll that determines the starting disposition of encountered beings. You can ally with one faction against another. You can get an NPC something they want to win them over to your cause. You can tangle with a faction one time and make it up to them later when you have common cause, or when you regret your past actions and try to make amends. In other words, there are fewer “monsters” that are “just there to kill". Some systems don't even give you XP for fighting monsters, or only a pittance. Many systems use morale checks, so monsters or NPCs mainly don't fight to the death. In all these ways that means that many NPCs and dungeon inhabitants need to have intelligible desires and robust lives of their own. They are very much not figments of your imagination, or only part of some weird vignette that you stumble upon in a pre-programmed scene.

When it comes to things it's important that the causality work in the normal way unless there's something special about the thing in question (e.g. magic). In OSR playstyles, since "the answer is (often) not on your character sheet", players tend to rely on what S. John Ross calls invisible rulebooks, i.e. commonsense knowledge about how things in the environment generally work, in order to engage in lateral problem-solving. This means that guns (so to speak) don't shoot bubbles unless they're magical bubble guns. Similarly, water will generally work like water does. You can't suddenly walk on water just because someone tells you that they believe in you, even if it would make for a vivid dreamlike scene.

The combination of coherent space, determinate factions, and normal causality also allows the GM to avoid arbitrary fiat by reasoning naturalistically about how different factions would respond to player actions. By looking at where they are in relation to what the PCs are doing and what's the factions generally get up to, the GM can reason about what would be likely to happen. This is part of what sustains whatever kernel of truth there is in the idea that the GM is a referee in OSR playstyles. The players trust the GM to set up a situation (say an exploration locale) without having any idea how things are going to go down in play. They also trust the GM to call the shots as they see them. When the PCs brings their chaotic shenanigans into contact with the pre-existing locale, the GM thinks about what would actually happen without stacking the deck one way or another.

The Dream Aesthetics Dilemma

The dream aesthetics dilemma is that many of the features of dreams, if employed in the most obvious ways, undermine OSR play styles. Do you want surreal dream space, or do you want the spatial logic of the dungeon crawl? Do you want absurd causalities or lateral problem solving? Do you want NPCs to embody the aesthetics of mysterious symbolism or do you want coherent factions with hopes and dreams of their own? CHOOSE. You can't have both.

The Atkinson Hotel made this dilemma vivid for me. It consisted of a pointcrawl between eight hotel locations from a creepy turn of the (20th) Century hotel, connected by often surreal transitions. For example, the first room had a normal door that led (presumably) down a hallway to a ballroom, but also a door in the back of the closet that led to cramped storage room, and one under the bed that led straight into a hot tub in the hotel baths. Given its limited number of locations, it was clearly not a map of an actual hotel, but rather of dream scenes like one might have in a dream (nightmare) of the Hotel Atkinson.

This meant that there was no place for the hotel staff or other guests that you might meet to reside on the map. They existed just as encounters waiting to happen in fixed rooms, or as random encounters. Some of the inhabitants were just doing something in a room with no naturalistic connection to anyone else, like the 1 HD chefs in a kitchen which apparently served no one. When I ran this room, I constructed a vivid scene in the kitchen, treating them in my mind like Maurice Sendak’s ominous but not malicious bustling chefs from a favorite children’s book of mine, In the Night Kitchen—which by the way is clearly about an anxiety dream. The players grasped the chefs as the surreal obstacle that they were, engaging with them appropriately in that mode by staging a deliciously ridiculous distraction to get past them.

But afterwards they reported that this whole thing really cramped their agency. They couldn’t reason in naturalistic ways. They felt like when they closed the door on someone they would cease to exist. They felt that many of the people they met, like the chefs or even some of the guests were maybe not real people they could engage with in the open-ended ways they were used to dealing with NPCs and factions. They knew that they couldn’t really leverage the absurd space of the hotel. There wasn’t really a there there. This meant they couldn’t fully engage in OSR style play.

And by the way, I consider that a good adventure in the mode of embracing the surreal aesthetics of dreams. Hence the dilemma.

The Dilemma Dissolved

My view is that this dilemma can be overcome—that we needn’t choose between dreamy aesthetics and old school playstyles, but only if we learn how to capture dream aesthetics in ways that don’t disrupt the logics of OSR play. I have a lot of experience trying to do this, admittedly with varying degrees of success. My best attempt, in print, is probably The Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater from Through Ultan’s Door 1. But there are some good dreamy bits in Through Ultan’s Door 3 as well, and many other unpublished things that I think worked fairly well in this vein from my long running (and now multiple) home games in Zyan.

The Surreal Adventure Location Premise

You can often get a lot of mileage by having a surreal premise for an adventure location, and then otherwise allow the adventure location to follow normal old school norms for exploration.

Here’s a dreamy premise for a locale: a theater where people are punished by puppets for being bad. Why is this dreamy? For one thing, it’s immediately recognizable as a child’s nightmare. Puppets are meant to entertain, and there is something sinister and dreamlike in reversing their function in this way. As dreams do, it also picks up on something real, something subtly alarming about puppets: their uncanny resemblance to humanity, and unnerving wooden theatricality.

In Through Ultan’s Door 1, rather than developing this dreamy premise through vivid puppet scenes and symbolic elements from childhood, I instead did the location up as proper ruins for dungeon crawling purposes. I gave it a rationale, treating trial by puppet as a holy spectacle conducted by a religious order no longer present. Like all ruins in D&D, I had other factions who had crept in since then, who were occupying different parts of the dungeon and were in conflict with one another. In this way, I began with a surreal dreamy premise and then treated the space as a naturalistic environment in accordance with ordinary (old school) dungeon logics. I tried to capture a vivid sense of place in connection with surreal theme—but then I always do that when designing an adventure locale.

Or consider a hex crawl, another procedural space of exploration, this time wilderness exploration. A striking example from my home game that has yet to see print, except in Huargo’s deliciously lurid poster above, is the White Jungle. The concept of the White Jungle is simple: it’s a jungle but it’s upside down. This premise literally upends the ordinary orientation of waking life, where the ground is under your feet and the sky is above your head. It makes a place (a jungle) that is already surreal in its unimaginable vibrance of life an order of magnitude weirder.

Once you have that absurd dream premise, the key to old school exploration-based play is to treat it, from that point forward, as if it's a naturalistically intelligible location. The jungle is not a pretext for a series of disconnected vivid dreamlike scenes where common sense physics is turned upside down. It is a hexcrawl that hangs from the bottom of a flying island. The jungle is a real physical space player characters can explore, as if it were a real wilderness. Just like falling is a thing in the real word when you’re climbing around according to our invisible rulebooks, so falling will also have to be an ever-present possibility here. Since the jungle is vertical, I fit it to hexcrawl conventions by creating a series of stacked hexmaps to model its four different levels, with rules for both vertical and lateral travel.

Suppose we zoom out from the level of the dungeon or the wilderness crawl to the level of the world or setting. Generally speaking, if you’re going to have an entire campaign where PCs in the waking world somehow explore dream locales, my first advice would be to follow the dreamlands aesthetics of Lovecraft, or Lord Dunsany from whose superior notes he was cribbing. Treat the dreamlands as an actual place—a land—where adventures can be had. Then you can embed surreal premises in ordinary exploration enabling locales. In other words, don’t treat it as disconnected dream bubbles that vanish when the players exit. Let there be a real there there at all levels from adventure locales to the whole world—the country of dreams.

Although this is the approach I’ve taken, it’s far from the only one possible. I’ll talk about Johnstone Metzger’s Nightmares Underneath a little bit later. It takes a different approach.

Jumbled Items, Conflated Locations, and Wonky Causes

Probably the single most dreamlike element from the White Jungle is the mysterious identity between the sky and the sea. The Zyanese call the sky, “The Endless Azure Sea”. The lowest level of the White Jungle is The Dangling Isles, where only a few groves descend into the depths of the Endless Azure Sea. They are like archipelago of inverted wooded isles, between which flying fish swim on the currents of air in the open sky. Of course, this strange environment is modeled in typical OSR fashion, by way of a hex crawl, and encounter tables populated by birds, flying fish, and other stranger aerial-aquatic beings like the immortal spirits of the air, the aery elemental demons of Wishery, or the painted baboons, dream travelers who skirt the lowest isles in hot air balloons. This phantasmagoria of dream elements is simply a hexcrawl with an associated encounter table, rules of travel, and the like.

The most dreamlike element in my Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater is probably the tree of silver melons. It grows in the darkness, with its roots in a loamy soil of decaying law books full of the casuistry and hermeneutics of the crooked law of Zyan. Having burst from the law library, its gnarled roots now block the door, its branches heavy in the darkness with silver skinned melons. These sweet, white-fleshed fruits have seeds like letters, so that if one is cut open, jumbled text can be seen. When one eats the fruit, one imbibes the knowledge from which the tree has nourished itself, becoming a fearsome Zyanese jurist.

There are many oneiric elements to this scene. A tree, heavy with silver-skinned fruit grows in the darkness: this already defies the laws of plant life. Its soil are books of the law, and the fruit somehow distilled their hermeneutics, so that when one eats the fruit, one somehow reads the books. Here we have the conflation of items typical of dream logic. Imagine describing a dream this way, “The fruit from the tree was somehow a book, and when I ate it, I was full of knowledge.” There is a strange identity of things, and causal logic breaks down.

And yet, when placed on the map, the tree is just a tree. Aside from its absurd implied cycle of life, it operates according to invisible rule books. For example, one must cut through the roots to reach the blocked door to the law library. Although fresh wood, it still could be used to try to kindle a fire.

Even the fruit can be assimilated to the challenge-based logics of old school play. In old school play, as I’ve written elsewhere, magical items are less passive buffs to characters (+1, +4, resistance to damage, etc.) and more like strange and very specific tools that players may use in unpredictable ways for out of the box problem-solving purposes. (An activity Ben Milton charmingly calls “shenanigans”.) For all their lurid dreamlike properties, the melons of the tree are essentially magic items—in D&D parlance, they are potions. In my new face to face game, where the party recently found this tree, I decided that the fruit would have a 24-hour duration, which assimilated them further to the logic of old school one use magical items. They are a resource the party can now deploy in unpredictable to solve their problems with an entirely new means: through superb legal reasoning. God only knows to what use they’ll put this strangely specific skeleton key—which is just how I like it.

The Secret Dream Logic of Dungeons and Dragons

Earlier my advice was to fit dreamy premises into standard modes of procedural exploration with their ordinary(ish) spatial logics and standard issue invisible rulebooks. In other words, my advice was to tame dream elements for old school play by embedding them in tried and true exploration formats. Good advice, I think. But the tree of the law hints at more interesting possibilities. How to describe what happened with the tree and its fruits to allow this synergy between dream aesthetics and old school play styles?

What I did with the tree, I think, was lean into what we might think of as the latent dream logic of dungeons and dragons. This dream logic is obscured by the accretion of decades of workaday publishing and tiresome tropes. It’s hard to see it Gary’s encyclopedic treatment and decades of late TSR and WoTC cruft. Let’s stick for the moment with the “potion” framework. Take the most quotidian of potions: the potion of invisibility. Let me redescribe it, adding just a little bit of aesthetic flare, as if it were a dream element.

“I drank a liquid so clear I couldn’t even see it was there. And when it was in me, somehow no one could see me. I could watch people, but not interact with them. I knew that if I did, they would see me and they could hurt me.”

There is a lot of dream thinking already happening in the formats for adventure locations and items, bog standard as they might seem. In fact, even procedures of exploration are dreamlike when thought of the right way. In Original D&D, the megadungeon around which play was assumed to center had exacting exploration rules that intensified the peril of dungeon delving, forced resource management on players, and generally titled things against the PCs. All monsters could see in the dark, but no PCs could. Light sources would deplete and flicker out. All doors were stuck for PCs and would close behind them, needing to be forced open--but yet they would open freely for monsters. I’m going to quote Philotomy’s wonderful explanation of these exploration procedures enabling high stakes old school dungeon exploration at length.

There are many interpretations of "the dungeon" in D&D. OD&D, in particular, lends itself to a certain type of dungeon that is often called a "megadungeon" and that I usually refer to as "the underworld." There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should "make sense" as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn't necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it. For example, consider the OD&D approach to doors and to vision in the underworld: Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength...Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut...In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns, and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg 9)

What Philotomy does in this passage is link exploration procedures that make dungeon exploration challenging and fraught to a certain idea of what a dungeon is, which he calls, following OD&D, the "Underworld”. Note what he does and doesn’t say about the Underworld. The Underworld has an ecology, “a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency”, that allows one to reason about it in ordinary ways, or where it departs from the ordinary, to puzzle out its general principles of operation. Although it has its own ecologies, and mappable spatial logics, the mythical underworld is somehow opposed in its nature to adventures. Philotomy invites us to view the rules about stuck and closing doors, or light sources and vision, not only as artificial game elements that make high tension procedural exploration possible, but as the metaphysical expression of a place that “gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer”. In other words, Philotomy takes the idea of a megadungeon as the center of a campaign, and associated exploration mechanics, and following the lead of the OD&D rulebooks, invites us to view “the dungeon” as an inimical dream space, surreal in parts, where the laws of reality above may not apply. It is as if a dream has broken through into reality, and the exploration rules about stuck doors are an exploration of the way in which the whole thing is like a living nightmare.

Although I can’t do it justice here, Johnstone Metzger’s The Nightmare Underneath runs with this idea in the best possible way. In a high Islamic setting dominated by reason, law, and civilization, “the nightmares underneath” are breaking through in the dungeons the setting calls “nightmare incursions”. Metzger recasts traditional rules for exploration of perilous spaces through the nightmare metaphysics of this reimagined Underworld. Dispensing with the idea of a megadungeon, he opts for smaller adventure locales that nonetheless adhere to the logic of the “Underworld”, now explicitly rationalized as an expression of the incursion of nightmares of unreason into the orderly world of law. He also introduces novel exploration rules that have to do with the nightmare being at the heart of the incursion. Brilliantly, he does this too with the idea of PC party as rootless, social outsiders, a common and often derided trope from early D&D. In The Nightmares Underneath, the PCs are adventurers who for unknown reasons are able to enter these nightmare incursions without being destroyed. They are in some ways pariahs outside of the civilization, although civilization depends on them as a dubious cure for the chaotic cancer that gnaws at reality. He also recasts the idea of dungeon exploration as treasure hunting, by having each nightmare incursion held in place by an “anchor”, a valuable piece of treasure to which the nightmare incursion is tied. (This allows him to reinterpret the idea of treasure for XP, in a way that fits with the dungeon as a nightmare space: to cut out the cancer of the incursion one must remove the treasure that “anchors” the nightmare from the dungeon.) In short, Metzger runs with the idea of the Underworld reimagining rules and setting tropes in relation to his recasting of the Underworld as a literal nightmare, while pleasingly subverting their original meanings.

Even without going as far as Metzger does to aesthetically reimagine the entire game this way, we can see many discrete elements in Dungeons & Dragons that are amenable to this kind of treatment. Take, for example, another trope of D&D in its many incarnations: the “funhouse dungeon”. Here we have a dungeon with a feel of a funhouse. Surreal elements jostle with one another in close proximity, defying the tidy confines of our daytime expectations. One might find here hellish games of chance alongside bizarre traps, riddling manticores, and other monsters implausibly occupying single rooms. Funhouse dungeons rightly get a bad rap in part because they push against the logics that enable unscripted exploration-based play. Why would real factions with lives of their own sit waiting in a room down the hall from a demonic circus barker (or whatever)? The danger is that the whole thing becomes like the Hotel Atkinson, a series of vivid but discrete scenes, rather than an open-world environment that can meaningfully be navigated. But before we dismiss the funhouse dungeon, perhaps we could pause a moment to acknowledge what a glorious fever-dream it is. There are ways of reimagining a funhouse dungeon to keep the demonic circus barkers and cannibalistic manticores, while enabling OSR playstyle. We should consider the funhouse dungeon as a surreal resource in D&D on which to draw. And there are a million things that are like this, from potions, to talking swords, alignment languages, travel by silver chord in the astral plane, and much more.

In other words, I’m saying that if we wish to embody dream aesthetics in our games, we might go beyond embedding a dreamlike premise in tried and true exploration structures. We can do more than paint an oneiric glaze on established Dungeons & Dragons tropes. There’s a lot that’s surreal in the history and practice of D&D. Why not intensify the dreamlike (il)logics implicit in otherwise stale D&D tropes and exploration mechanics? We can make things fresh by awakening the dream aesthetics that already slumber just below the surface of the game. Like Metzger, we can reimagine the entire system of rules and tropes as expressive of dream aesthetics, or otherwise rationalized by them. Or we can do it in a more piecemeal fashion. 

In closing, what I want to say is that we can do both of these things. We can place dreamlike premises that conflate places, render objects ambiguous, or apply a single surreal twist, in tried and true exploration frameworks. This is to treat them as real place, or real factions, that allow for challenge-based, exploration, sandbox play. Or, we can work to bring out the dreaminess of those very exploration frameworks or seemingly workaday tropes of what is already an absurd game. To bring out the dream aesthetics, we just need to own the absurdity.